Meetings and Conversations Aren't the Same Thing?


Conversations and meetings are two disparate business activities.

Conversations are pressure free, organic ways for people to express thoughts and exchange ideas without serious judgement or agenda.
Meetings are for a curated group to plan, strategize or decide on a certain topic.

Both should be done to encourage effective growth & team communication. But unfortunately, almost every gathering is categorized as a meeting. It's not just semantics either. When what should-have-been a conversation is misnamed a meeting, ease of opting in and free-flowing dialogue are stifled. The expectations set in a meeting typically keep everyone on track, but they also inhibit participation.

So what’s the difference between a meeting and a conversation? Topic and agenda, who should participate, and how the gathering comes about.

Do you have an agenda?

Agendas in meetings
The first step in setting a meeting is to determine if there is a topic important enough to be addressed formally by multiple people (your business is important, so there usually is). Ask yourself, "Does a meeting need to be held, and if so, why?" The more important the topic, the greater the likelihood you need to hold a meeting. 63% of meetings are conducted without a pre-planned agenda and this lack of planning is a root cause of many inefficient meetings. An agreed-to agenda must be sent out in order drive the participants to reach desired objectives and outcomes.

Lack of agendas in conversations
Conversations on the other hand are freewheeling and spontaneous. They thrive on not having an agenda. Bouncing from topic to topic can lead to insights and ideas that won't be gleaned from an agenda-driven meeting. When skilled conversationalists deviate from a topic, they often loop it back to a previous topic of conversation, thus combining two things in a unique way. Conversations are a safe space to explore new ideas and possibilities while meetings are a place to address a specific topic.  

Alright, who's in?

Participants in meetings
Certain key participants such as stakeholders, facilitators and decision-makers must be present to carry out the agenda of a meeting. No matter the desired objective, if those present don't have the authority or experience to reach an outcome, it's a waste of time for others to attend. Once the necessary players are present, a facilitator plays the critical role of guiding meetings. Nothing stops a meeting in its tracks more quickly than a lack of direction. Facilitators set the tone on how to follow the agenda and set expectations on communication and interaction. While the facilitator is typically the one who called the meeting, a meeting consultant or a third party could be brought in to move the agenda along more objectively and efficiently.

Participants in conversations
Conversations don't require a handpicked roster of attendees and everyone is encouraged to carry the conversation along. Two or more people with interest or knowledge on a common topic can have a productive conversation. The democratic nature of conversations brings people together who wouldn't typically interact in a meeting. Most of us feel comfortable talking one-on-one or in a small group while speaking to an audience leaves us mortified. Lower level employees who don't want to to rock the boat in a formal meeting may be more inclined to speak their mind in an informal conversation. New ideas and honest talk that are left behind at the boardroom door come out more easily in a casual talk around the water cooler.     

What were we talking about?

While meetings have a set start and stop, along with the need for coordination of a time and place, conversations allow for free flowing participation. Humans are naturally social. Conversations are natural and come easy to many of us. Further, you can jump in and out of conversations, with little more notice than getting up and saying you have somewhere else to be. While conversations have no expectation for outcome, there is possibility. Possibility that this conversation sparks a new idea or brings two people together in a closer alliance. The openness and inclusivity of conversations is what makes them unique. Meetings are required gatherings that carry a strong sense of obligation. The best meetings showcase great ideas, hard work and help to move the company forward. The worst meetings notoriously lead participants into negative behaviors such as phone gazing, online shopping, and daydreaming.

Conversations, brainstorms, and group work sessions should all should occur in order to develop and grow a business. While the execution of work is typically done outside of meetings, we spend an inordinate amount of our time in meetings. Organizations are drowning in unproductive meetings. Meetings are only valuable if they’re seen as precious. Also, if we mindfully allow for casual conversations to take place, we may find the need for meetings lessened and more effective meetings overall.

Know you need to have a meeting? Having a dedicated space will make all the difference.

Post by Trent Sultemeier